Defending Bourgeois Dignity
In my most recent Bloomberg View column, I used President Obama's infamous "You didn't build that" remarks as an occasion to introduce readers to Deirdre McCloskey's concept of "bourgeois dignity" and her important new book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. Here's the column's opening:
The controversy surrounding President Barack Obama's admonishment that "if you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen" has defied the usual election-year pattern.
Normally a political faux pas lasts little more than a news cycle. People hear the story, decide what they think, and quickly move on to the next brouhaha, following what the journalist Mickey Kaus calls the Feiler Faster Thesis. A gaffe that might have ruined a candidate 20 years ago is now forgotten within days.
Three weeks later, Obama's comment is still a big deal.
Although his supporters pooh-pooh the controversy, claiming the statement has been taken out of context and that he was referring only to public infrastructure, the full video isn't reassuring. Whatever the meaning of "that" was, the president on the whole was clearly trying to take business owners down a peg. He was dissing their accomplishments. As my Bloomberg View colleague Josh Barro has written, "You don't have to make over $250,000 a year to be annoyed when the president mocks people for taking credit for their achievements."
The president's sermon struck a nerve in part because it marked a sharp departure from the traditional Democratic criticism of financiers and big corporations, instead hectoring the people who own dry cleaners and nail salons, car repair shops and restaurants -- Main Street, not Wall Street. (Obama did work in a swipe at Internet businesses.) The president didn't simply argue for higher taxes as a measure of fiscal responsibility or egalitarian fairness. He went after bourgeois dignity.
"Bourgeois Dignity" is both the title of a recent book by the economic historian Deirdre N. McCloskey and, she argues, the attitude that accounts for the biggest story in economic history: the explosion of growth that took northern Europeans and eventually the world from living on about $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two (in today's buying power), to the current global average of $30 -- and much higher in developed nations. (McCloskey's touchstone is Norway's $137 a day, second only to tiny Luxembourg's.)
That change, she argues, is way too big to be explained by normal economic behavior, however rational, disciplined or efficient. Hence the book's subtitle: "Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World."
You can read the rest here.
Obama's fans have, of course, rushed to his defense, generally by arguing that the president was making a completely obvious, non-controversial point with which everyone with the slightest awareness of the world agrees. Here's a typical email I received (picked merely because it was the most recent and therefore easiest to retrieve):
the only reason you call what the President said a faux pas is because, like Fox News, you took what he said completely out of context. Tell me, Ms. Postrel, can you name one company that has managed to exist and build itself into success with just the company owner involved? One company that is successful without employees, customers and the infrastructure to support it? And by infrastructure I mean such things as roads, railroad lines and such. Can you name such a company? Because Mitt Romney has been trying to for the last several weeks now since the President made those remarks and Mr. Romney has been failing pathetically at it.
Because that is what the President was talking about..that a company relies on people and things besides just it's owner to succeed. What the President said only is a faux pas if one takes him completely out of context and is so incredibly intellectually dishonest that one sits there like you and Fox News and all the conservatives and pretends that companies are an island onto themselves where the only person that made it successful is the company owner.
If that's all the president meant, then why did he make a point of saying it? Who on earth did he think he was arguing with? The many entrepreneurs who think they don't need customers, employees, and roads? I'm pretty sure that even Rupert Murdoch would not question that claim.
Immediate electoral issues aside, this rush to say that the president was just repeating truisms and not actually trying to run down entrepreneurs is gratifying. It suggests that bourgeois dignity is alive and well, making attacks on it unthinkable.